Nowhere to Go
When the drill begins, the locker room is the closest place to hide. Hustled along by teachers, the students rush inside: Boys pile into one room, girls into another. It’s not hard to imagine the usual anxiety that attends middle school safety drills. Two girls, best friends, clutch hands a little too tightly. A few kids sneak looks at their cell phones and spread the word that everything’s fine. Nervous laughter ripples through the group. When the all-clear’s called, the students sigh—it seems like they’re all exhaling together—and everyone tumbles nervously back into the gym.
Earlier this month, a trans girl was left with nowhere to go during her school’s safety drill. While her classmates waited for the all-clear behind walls and doors, inside the relative safety of their locker rooms, she waited in the open. She stayed in the gym with a teacher as other adults discussed which locker room would be appropriate for her to shelter in.
According to news reports, the girl had been using the restrooms and locker rooms that corresponded to her gender identity until other students' parents had complained. The school switched policies, and when the drill arrived, nobody knew where she should go.
One of the earliest sources of information on this incident was the group Equality Stafford, a community of teachers, families and students working for LGBTQ+ rights in the Virginia district where the drill took place. In the group’s original post on the event, they made clear the stakes of the girl’s exclusion: “During an event that prepares children to survive an attack by actual assailants, she was treated as if she was so much of a danger to peers that she was left exposed and vulnerable.”
Of course we can tell ourselves that this was only a drill, that there’s no way students would take the lessons they learned that day to heart—they’d know better than to lock their classmate out during a real emergency. But that’s what they were told to do that day. That’s what she heard them told to do.
This isn’t the only high-profile failure involving a trans student so far this year. Across the country in Oklahoma, a middle school had to close down for two days at the beginning of the school year. A trans girl, unable to find the faculty restroom she had used at her old school, instead ducked into the bathroom aligned with her gender identity.
A post quickly appeared on the Facebook page for a parents' group: “Heads up parents of 5th thru 7th grade girls,” a woman wrote. “The transgender is already using the girls bathroom.”
In response, other adults posted slurs and insults about the girl. Someone called her “it.” Someone threatened her with mutilation.
When Inaction Is Injustice
These two cases share a few things in common, but one of the most striking is the way in which the ignorance of adults outside of the school is amplified by the inaction of those inside it.
In the case of the Oklahoma school, those in charge did take steps to try to ensure that the threatened student felt safe—they shut down the school, added police and provided the 12-year-old with an escort when she returned—but it was too little, too late. The girl and her family are moving: “I don’t feel safe living here anymore,” her mother explained.
In Virginia, online support for the student locked out during the drill, as well as anger toward her teachers, prompted Equality Stafford to update their original post. “It is important to highlight that the child’s PE teachers are not the bad guys,” their note reads. “They are teachers without guidance in a county without guidance for these issues. They were following that they were told to do.”
And here we get to the crux of the problem: When schools drag their feet establishing policy, when schools don’t stand up for their students against community pressure, when they don’t proactively work to ensure that all students know that school is a safe space for everyone, then moments of confusion can trigger problems that cause real and lasting damage.
How You Can Help
Have you done a school policy checkup? Do you know where your school stands on these issues?
- Students’ rights
- Anti-bullying or anti-harassment policies
- Bathroom and locker room access
- Inclusive sports policies
- Dress codes
- Inclusive sex education
- An inclusive and empowering environment
In our guide Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students, you’ll find recommended policies, model statements and even recommended strategies and language for addressing common concerns.
It can be easy to feel overwhelmed, both by the work we face and by what may seem like the impossible task of keeping our students safe inside our classrooms, much less beyond their doors. But in cases like the ones above, it’s impossible to tell the difference between inaction and injustice. And it’s not hard to imagine the difference one educator could have made.
Delacroix is the associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.
Bathroom and Locker Room Access
Students should have access to bathrooms, locker rooms and other gender-specific spaces that best match their gender identity. Basing bathroom access on assigned sex can have dangerous ramifications for students whose gender expression does not match their assigned sex. According to a survey from UCLA’s Williams Institute, 68 percent of transgender people faced verbal harassment while in the bathroom; nearly 10 percent endured physical assault. Those who fear such harassment will often not go to the bathroom at all, risking their physical health.
Bathroom policies often ignore the identities and experiences of intersex students entirely. Biological or birth certificate criteria might force them to use facilities that do not correspond with their gender expression which, again, can violate their privacy and dissuade them from using these facilities at all.
A common pushback: “I am (or my child is) uncomfortable being in the bathroom with a transgender student.”
Be prepared to respond. Point out the difference between accommodation and discrimination. If someone is uncomfortable being in a shared space—for whatever reason—give them the option of a more private facility. Just remember that their discomfort isn’t justifiable cause to force another student to use a different bathroom or locker room. A gender-neutral or single-stall bathroom can be made available to any student—LGBTQ or not—who desires more privacy. If such a facility is available, make sure students know they have the option. At primary public-use bathroom locations, post a map that points to where students can find the single-stall or gender-neutral bathroom.